When Forbes Travel Guide contacted me about writing a “best of” list for Winnipeg, I knew that Assiniboine Park would be in there. It had to. When I first visited one late July morning, it was love at first sight. Winnipeg’s got a great urban fabric with rich architecture and culture, but what you don’t often hear about (at least I didn’t) is that Winnipeg has some amazing green spaces.
Assiniboine Park would be where I’d want to regularly spend my time if I lived in Winnipeg. With 1,100 acres of forest, parkland, and gardens, it’s one of the largest urban parks in Canada, and the perfect place to go unwind from the hustle and bustle without even leaving the city! Located west of Winnipeg’s downtown core, it’s not immediately obvious to the casual first-time visitor, but for those that make the effort, the rewards are worth it.
On my first visit to Assiniboine Park, I met up with Kevin Hunter, the Director of Marketing & Communcation of Assiniboine Park Conservancy. He took me on a walk around the park to not just take in nature’s beauty along the Assiniboine River, but to give me a flavour of what the park has to offer, including some recent additions from its significant renovations.
We first walked behind the Pavilion where there were spacious fields, and glanced at the Lyric Theatre. The Lyric is a popular place in the summertime, where locals come to enjoy free performances, in addition to Movies in the Park. Apparently the Royal Winnipeg Ballet does the occasional show as well!
Across the field, we wandered through the winding pathways into the beautiful English Gardens, a popular place for wedding photography. The flowers were in bloom and the trees were lush. When people think of Winnipeg, I doubt they’re thinking of this. It was gorgeous.
The English Garden leads into the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden, which combines artistic beauty with a natural setting. It actually reminded me of being in France. All throughout are beautiful bronze sculptures strategically placed throughout the gardens. From reclining nudes by the pond, to playful bears – it equally feels whimsical and enlightening.
Kevin took me across to the newly-renovated duck pond, where geese and ducks mingled happily.
We poked our heads into the Qualico Family Centre and Park Café, a rather impressive new structure full of natural light, bustling with local families. This space is used to host special events, including programs for children. I really loved how you feel like you’re in the forest in this room.
My favourite part of the park was the newly-opened Nature Playground, a whimsical children’s play area with willow tree tunnels, a giant robin’s nest, and slithering slides.
There was a sand and water pump system set up especially for kids to play in, as well as all sorts of adorable decorations, such as the musical frog planters, each one with a colourful outfit, playing their own instruments.
Kevin explained to me that even though he’s an adult, the children’s Nature Playground is his favourite part of the park, and it became mine too.
We walked back to the Pavilion where we took the elevator up to the Pavilion Gallery Museum, a free museum with the largest collection of works by Manitoba artists Ivan Eyre, Clarence Tillenius, and Walter J. Phillips, as well as the endearing Winnie The Pooh exhibit. Winnie the Pooh was named after Winnipeg, after all!
Assiniboine Park Zoo
Also located in Assiniboine Park is the Assiniboine Park Zoo, home to 80 acres of exhibits and close to 200 different species that account for a total of over 2,000 specimens. When we visited, I was told that many of the exhibits were undergoing significant renovations, but once complete, the zoo will have the most comprehensive polar bear exhibit in the world.
During my visit I saw the Siberian tigers, the Asiatic lions, the tropical Toucan Ridge, the penguins, and even kangaroos in the new Australian Walkabout – a new exhibit where you can be in the same enclosure as the animals. I saw North American creatures such as muskox, caribou, cougars, reindeer, a badger, bison, snowy owls, and a lynx. I even spent some time with the butterflies at the Shirley Richardson Butterfly Gallery.
The star of the Assiniboine Park Zoo is of course, Hudson, the polar bear. You can him in my photo, but he’s camouflaged. He was lying down at the time, sucking on a soother, as apparently it makes him happy. It makes him so happy, he hums!
Currently he’s residing in the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre, but will be moved in 2014 once the renovations for the upcoming Journey to Churchill exhibit is complete. You can learn about the new exhibit on the video:
After my visit to the zoo, I joined Kevin for lunch at the beautiful Terrace in the Park, located in the Pavilion. Terrace in the Park proudly features regional Manitoban cuisine on its menu, emphasizing local products with focus on Canadian fish and seafood. As a result, I decided to go with something truly Manitoban: a Pickerel Po’Boy sandwich.
I enjoyed my time at the Assiniboine Park so much that I returned with my boyfriend and his family, three weeks later. We visited almost every part of the park, including a gourmet lunch at Terrace in the Park.
Padding on the Assiniboine River
Later on that afternoon, I met up with Cam White of Northern Soul to do some canoeing along the Assiniboine River. Canoeing, of course, is very much a part of the voyageur lifestyle and an absolute must experience while you’re in Manitoba. Cam knew I had already been fishing on the Red River, and knew that I had paddled a voyageur canoe at Fort Whyte Alive. Apparently a lot of the places he wanted to take me to, I had already visited, so we drove out to a park on the Assiniboine River, just across from Assiniboine Park, just off Portage west of downtown.
We launched the canoe amongst the grassy reeds – I took the front, and Cam in the back. I purposefully kept my camera in my backpack while we paddled and soaked up the experience.
Cam and I exchange all sorts of wonderful stories, of the Bloodvein River wilderness canoe expeditions that he organizes, to urban geography and sociology. We had such an intriguing discussion, it was the exact way you would want to experience a canoe paddle down the Assiniboine – carefree, relaxing, engaged in intellectual discussion while learning about the Assiniboine River and its relationship to the city of Winnipeg, both past and present.
As we passed under a bridge, Cam explained that on his organized tours he’ll organize a big picnic, where people will lower down a picnic basket full of delicious treats, including wine. We weren’t there for a picnic, but Cam had brought along a bar of gourmet dark chocolate for us to share… and I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to spend the afternoon.
Our journey fittingly ended at The Forks, where we manoeuvred the canoe into the manmade waterfront walkway, to the amusement of onlookers. We portaged the canoe back to where we started, and it was somehow satisfying to end my journey where at the confluence of the Assiniboine and the Red River.
When I got back to my hotel room later that evening, I got quite emotional at the following sight…
There, sitting on my dresser, was an original Winnie the Pooh teddy bear with a story of his origins. He was holding a jar of Manitoba wildflower honey, sitting next to a book: Winnie The Bear, signed by the author. There was a card made of handmade paper, featuring bees and honeycomb. Inside the card was the sweetest handwritten note from the staff at the Fairmont Winnipeg Gold Floor, hoping I had enjoyed my day at Assiniboine Park. I was seriously moved to tears. What a way to end this day.
A big thank you to Kevin for introducing me to the majesty of the Assiniboine Park and the Assiniboine Park Zoo. I loved my time there so much, I returned three weeks later with my boyfriend and his parents. We explored the English Garden, the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden, and has a blast with the Nature Playground. We even had lunch at Terrace in the Park! And a big thank you to Cam for taking me on a memorable paddle. Looks like I’ll have to set aside time for the Bloodvein next! Finally, thank you to the staff at the Fairmont Gold Lounge for the incredibly sweet gift.